When Doug Leman has an opportunity to speak to a farmer who is struggling, his most important role is to be a good, trustworthy listener. When the time is right, he assures the farmer that he or she will get through this. His encouragement comes from the deep well of experience. He’s been there and shares his story.
Doug wanted to give his children an opportunity to work on the family farm. In 2001, he and his wife, Margaret, took a leap of faith and started an 800-cow dairy operation called Sunny Ridge Dairy. They put together what they felt was a solid business plan. But as every farmer has experienced, unforeseen variables do not bow to good intentions.
The Lemans grew in their knowledge of the business and learned about having employees for the first time. The first couple of years were rough, but then finally they experienced solid footing. It seemed like they were getting established.
Then in 2009, the effects from those unforeseen variables were felt. By June, Doug figured it was costing him roughly $3,000 per day for the privilege of working.
Circumstances were stressful. He began to deal with depression and constantly was trying to figure out how to keep the ship afloat. It was a dire time of hopelessness and helplessness. He fought thoughts of his family being better off without him.
It was easy to withdraw within himself, he recalls. His wife was aware and compassionate toward his struggles, and his pastor and a few close friends were a safe place to share. But the gravity of their circumstances made it easy for Doug to understand how easily it would be to fall into a despairing, suicidal depression.
Each morning, the first thing Doug would do was open his Bible. Even though things weren’t turning around, he received glimmers of hope and inspiration. It helped him put his circumstances into perspective. His faith was made stronger.
Short-term parameters were set by the financial institution, and he couldn’t meet them. He had to rely on some other sources just to survive into the next year. It was no longer any fun. Among all the doubts and struggles, Doug’s faith remained intact, though his prayers weren’t being answered exactly as he had hoped. He knew the farm could not be sustained. Selling was the only option.
The first week of January in 2011, the farm transitioned to the next owner. At midnight, as Doug and Margaret drove away, weeping, he received a text from one of their sons: “It was a great ride, Dad, thanks.”
That, he felt, made it all worth it.
The next day, Doug and Margaret stepped onto a plane to Florida. He had bought the tickets knowing they would need to get away. He was 56, broke and young enough that he would need a new career but had no idea what that even looked like.
He claims the trip to Florida was the best wasted money he’s ever spent. It gave them time to think, reflect and heal.
While in Florida, Doug heard from the Indiana Dairy Producers. They were looking to hire a new director. He thought it might be a good fit since he’d been involved with the organization, even serving as president. He was hired, and the organization saw membership and sponsorship grow.
Doug has built relationships with individuals. Once he sets foot on a farm, he can put himself in the farmers’ shoes. He speaks their language, understands what the stresses and struggles are like.
His position has opened doors to speak hope and encouragement into the lives of others. Each of his sons has his own career now, and even though Doug is still involved in the dairy industry, the loss of doing what he once loved can sting. But he understands how he’s being used in a greater way in his current role.
“You wonder why, you question yourself, but as I look back, I truly believe I was being prepared for something different, and I will say it made me a much more compassionate person in the end,” Doug says.
Doug hopes those who are struggling today will take time to talk to someone. “There’s no blueprint on how you handle things, but first know there is always someone out there who will listen,” he says. “There will be another opportunity. Nothing is by chance, not even the struggles.”
His best days are when he’s helping someone going through an issue. He speaks with a quiet confidence when he shares. “With the dairy farms that have shut down recently, I have been able to have many conversations with producers that have become very personal,” he says. “That’s when I know it’s been a good day — when I can encourage someone else.”
McClain writes from Greenwood, Ind.